The Joy of Laserdiscs

As we roll into 2012, it looks all but inevitable that video media in general will slowly and irrevocably shift into a fundamentally intangible commodity. The disks and cartridges imprinted with our favorite movies and TV shows, once a necessity, are now walking the line between luxury and liability. We’re just a couple of critical steps away from digital-only video releases being the norm, and actual physical media being relegated to the luxury/collector/fetishist/hipster/survivalist-compound market. But before that happens, I’m going to talk to you a bit about something which is the logical opposite of a digital download.

Included: Universal scale reference


This, dear friends, is a Laserdisc.

Not so very long ago, these things were integral to otaku culture across the globe. Before DVDs came along, laserdiscs were the gold standard of audio/video quality. Too unfathomably expensive to be anything other than an indulgence of the wealthy or obsessive, they never really gained a foothold in the western world. In Japan, however, all video media is too unfathomably expensive to be anything other than an indulgence of the wealthy or obsessive, so no one really noticed. For a fairly long time, the ultimate and definitive version of any movie or TV show was the laserdisc release.

Meanwhile, in English-language fandom, laserdiscs were coveted for their role in the fansub creation process. Before digital distribution, fansubs were already going strong, typically powered by an absurdly productive team of young people who spent all of their free time stringing VCRs together to copy tapes and then send big boxes of them through the mail with no tangible profit to show for it. Because LDs are higher quality than the capacity of VHS, and they (generally) don’t wear out over time, so it was common practice to make the “master” copy of a fansub by applying subtitles in real-time to the video feed from a laserdisc and recording that to VHS. This would give you at least one extra generation of VHS to VHS copying before the whole thing turned into an unwatchable mess. If you ever watched a fansub in the 90s and it didn’t look like ass, then there was definitely a laserdisc involved.

But those days are over. Both VHS and LD gave way to DVD, and even those are being edged out by streaming for convenience and BD for gold-standard archival quality. Laserdiscs are a good two generations removed from the mainstream, which may make them seem essentially worthless now, but I’m here to tell you that laserdiscs still have a place in the shelves of the dedicated otaku. Why? Well, think of it this way.

1857 is 1978

In the simplest terms, you should think of laserdiscs being to video what vinyl records are to audio. Once upon a time, you got them because they were the best thing going. At least this is true of Laserdiscs in Japan. In America, you probably bought them because you wanted to show them off to your friends at the yacht club, or because the leprechauns who live in your refrigerator told you to, or some other equally fictional reason. These days you would be hard pressed to argue that either one is objectively superior to all other formats, but they may be more subjectively appealing for any number of reasons. The nostalgia factor is certainly at play here, since even if you never owned an actual laserdisc during their heyday, all the content is capped at about 1998. Regardless of whether or not it’s stuff you’ve ever seen before, there’s bound to be a certain natsukashii quality.

A word about quality here. I know that LDs essentially look like ginormous CD/DVD/BDs, and that we’ve all been trained to associate that weird wavy-rainbow-chrome with digital content, so you’d be forgiven for thinking that a 12-inch silver frisbee would naturally be full of 1s and 0s like a retro-future proto-DVD, but this is actually a common misconception. The truth is that laserdisc video is 100% analog. There’s an optional digital audio track, but by default the audio will be entirely analog as well. I have no idea how they fit the three tracks side-by-side in different formats on the same medium, I’m not a scientist, but I suspect it’s really clever in a 1978 kind of way.

I think that this misconception is the source of a lot of the tendency to dismiss laserdiscs as being utterly inferior to DVD/BD. Outside of market forces like industry adoption and intercompatibility, digital formats don’t have a lot of room for nuance. If one holds more bits than another then that one is better and we can all go home. But analog? Analog can be a little subtler. Those “richer tones” you hear LP enthusiasts going on about are all here, in the colors and details.

This man is my spirit animal

Yes, laserdiscs are lower resolution than DVDs, let alone BDs, but are well above VHS or broadcast TV. They actually fit in quite nicely between VHS’s 115k pixels and DVD’s 345k, clocking in at just under 270k (for comparison, BD tops out at a little over 2 million). However, although the may lose to DVD in terms of pure resolution, it’s important to remember that they have been completely untouched by the digital process. The video you’re enjoying has never been compressed, posterized, or upsampled. There is no bitrate because there are no bits, there’s just the fucking movie.

I’d show you a side-by-side comparison, but putting it on the internet as a JPEG defeats the entire purpose. Nonetheless, hopefully when you think about them in those terms the laserdisc -> vinyl comparison makes a certain amount of sense. There’s also an inherent tactile and substantial quality that you get from having your content in a form that actually has weight and takes up space. You could fit the same stuff onto a thumbdrive or into a cloud locker, but it isn’t the same experience. This is why, despite their obvious advantages and popularity, digital media never fully replace analog media. Some people take a perverse satisfaction in being able to hold the things they own, not just take it on faith that they exist.

Beyond the discs themselves, you get the added benefits of the packaging and bonus materials. These days, even if you are shelling out for a physical disk, you’re lucky if you get a glossy one-page advertisement slipped inside a flimsy plastic case. And don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that it’s possible to buy an entire series for $30 now, and I’m completely sympathetic to the need to cut costs somewhere, but still. The transition from bubble to recession is far more apparent in ancillary materials than it is in the content, and we’re all worse off for it. For me, the world was just a more interesting place when deluxe boxed set meant deluxe boxed set, even if it did cost tens of thousands of yen.

On chance you never played this gameNote that the character guide just has 3 pictures of Ruri

Isn't she beautiful?It doesn't even have that many chapters. I mean really.

This is the Nadesico movie. It is one of humankind’s greatest achievements. The LD release comes with a book. The book is 12″ by 12″. The book has 41 pages. The book contains staff interviews, production materials, story recaps, a glossary, comprehensive character bios, a mech guide, and pages upon pages of art. The DVD release comes with a card. The card is 7″ by 5″. The card has two sides. One side has a picture on it, I guess. This is not progress, guys. This is just sad.

Part of this disparity is just due to the logistics of encasing a weighty 12″ disc. The box is going to be the size and shape of an LP sleeve out of necessity, and will likely be marginally thicker. What’s more, LDs only hold 30-60 minutes (depending on quality) of video per side, so feature-length movies are going to take up at least two discs, creating the need for even more elaborate packaging. And this space almost never goes to waste. If there are eight 12″x12″ surfaces available, you can bet that each one will have some of the best, most iconic artwork available. The packages alone become like mini-artbooks.

On top of this, because LDs pretty much always coexisted with VHS releases, they were universally presented as luxury, archival-quality copies and were priced to match. In order to entice consumers to pay the premium for these high-end editions, companies would throw all kinds of crazy junk into the box, especially for theatrical productions. After all, there’s plenty of room in the box. When you crack open an LD, you shouldn’t be surprised if you find a T-shirt, a wall clock, and a box of cookies in there.

Itoshiki's biggest mistake

Now, obviously I don’t expect all of you to have a sudden epiphany and run out to start investing in ‘discs this weekend. There are, after all, some substantial barriers to entry. Getting a player is pretty straightforward, but finding a decent one will still set you back a good $50-$100 before shipping. If you live somewhere hip, you may be able to find one on Craigslist or in a local thrift store, but otherwise you run the risk of paying as much for UPS ground as you did for the actual device. Plus, no matter how much you pay and how careful you are, the damn things just don’t travel well. They’re big, they’re heavy, they’re old, and they have moving parts. I destroyed one moving from Boston to San Francisco, and then destroyed a second one moving from San Francisco to New York. It’s frustrating.

Then there’s the actual discs. They flow like water in Akihabara (and, to an ironically lesser extent, Nakano) but if you end up with more than about five then you’re in for a really awkward time taking them home again. And if you’re not prepared to take impulsive trips around the Tokyo area, the prospects are a bit more grim.

These days, eBay has become flooded with unsellable crap. Expect to wade through twenty nonconsecutive Hong Kong Ranma 1/2 discs and five identical copies of Agent Aika before seeing anything that a human being might be interested in. Yahoo Auctions has the opposite problem, where just about everything you find is likely to be absurdly valuable and sold only in an extravagant boxed set at something remarkably close to its original retail price. Starting a collection from scratch requires diligence, patience, and a certain willingness to waste money. I think it’s rewarding, but there’s no accounting for taste. Or for me.

On the other hand, if you’ve been in the scene for a while and you still have some LDs, then for pity’s sake don’t just throw them out. Recognize that they are precious remnants from another time, and that new formats can supplant the old, not just replace them. These are things worth treasuring.

Or, if you absolutely have to, just give them to me.


Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *